Sinéad Voorhees: Brave Backpacker Turned Career-Crushing Mum
Editor’s Note: In person, Sinéad is every bit as dynamic and inspiring as you’d assume from her answers here. I originally met her through a mutual friend in the fall of 2012, and was thrilled when our paths crossed again a few months later through our previous jobs. It wasn’t long after that before I could start calling her a friend. She’s the kind of woman that you spend time with and wonder where she gets her energy and her passion, so I consider us fortunate that she shares exactly that today. -Dena
Side note: we’ll be including more of Sinéad’s insights in this week’s newsletter, and you can sign-up here.
Name: Sinéad Voorhees
Where did you grow up: A combo of Ireland and the States
Where do you live now: Spokane, WA
What do you consider “home”?: Home is with my precious family on our 10.5 acre dream hobby farm.
What is your career path?: I currently work at a little slice of heaven called Whitworth University. I didn’t even know it existed when I made my appearance in Spokane, but it literally is the best. I’ve now had three (almost four) different positions there, most recently working in the MBA program. I am always so touched and inspired by the students; my husband and I have already decided that our girls will be attending Whitworth…hands down, without question.
What other passions do you have?: I really love being a mum. I love walking around our 10.5 future hobby farm that is just an empty canvas right now. I also love wine, McDonalds and Jesus. In my youth, I really loved traveling.
Favorite thing about the PNW?: THE PEOPLE! I have lived (properly LIVED) in six countries on three continents and I have never met people like the population of Spokane. It is amazing to me. And every time I think I cannot fall in love with Spokane more, I do.
How do you take your coffee (or preferred morning beverage)?: I drink at least four cups of Barry’s Irish Breakfast tea in the green box with a little milk. No sugar because I am proper Irish and I only put the milk in after the tea bag is out. Never pour the milk with the tea bag still in it–cardinal sin. When I am on the run, soy latte with no foam.
How do you record info (pen/typing/etc)?: I am old-fashioned, and need to process my thoughts with a pen and paper.
Favorite season in the PNW?: I really like the fall. I am a true product of someone who has spent most of their life either on the west side of Washington State or Ireland. I do rain, mild temperatures, slightly unpleasant weather with a nice shot of sunshine really well. The summers and winters here kill me.
How do you protect yourself from the rain and deal with inclement weather?: I tough it out because I am a champion. But honestly, growing up in a place with constant rain or drizzle has conditioned me to expect it. I am unfazed by rain. I don’t bring a coat anywhere. I never have an umbrella. I bring my shoulders up, put my head down, walk a little faster and chalk it up to life. When I lived in East Africa, you ran for cover when it rained because it wasn’t the misty rain, it was tsunami/torrential downpour/God-help-us rain. That was incredible.
How did you decide on Spokane for college? What made you decide to stay?: College was a free-for-all. I had no real plans to come to Spokane for college other than it was my backup choice. Deciding to stay here, however, was a different story…I had this best friend. He was objectively handsome. Then, I moved back to Ireland for grad school, so this best friend and I wrote emails to each other like modern-day pen pals. One day, as I was writing one of these infamous emails, I had a realization: I think I’m in love. What does one do when they think they are in love? Well, they decline to tell their objectively handsome best friend, they hold their breath, drop it all and move back to Spokane. I knew it would really suck if he didn’t like me back, like country-heartbreak-song suck. However, I’m glad to say that, two kids and a happy marriage later, it is working out very well.
What were your first impressions of the PNW when you moved here? And how does that compare to how you feel now?: My views of PNW were moderate. Nothing to write home about. Just… blah. It all changed for me once I started investing in the people.
What are people surprised to learn about you?: Many people would have no idea if they met me in my current state of mum hood and career that I used to be a crazy, global backpacker. I have been to over 30 countries spanning four continents. I used to pick a continent, solidify my time frame, pack a backpack and set off. No itinerary, no travel mates…just myself and my wits. I would make friends at every destination, most often in the first couple days of arriving and then we would travel a country together for a month. Some of the best people I have ever met on this planet were fellow wanderers; Sarah in Turkey, Anna in Cambodia, Paco in Nepal, Anthony in Rwanda, Carolyn in Uganda, the Australian lads in India…It hardly seems real to me (luckily, I have pictures to prove it).
Would you mind sharing your Peace Corps experience with us?: I was going to change the world. I thought the best way to do that was to move to a distant country (where I didn’t speak the language) and rescue everyone. From what? I don’t know. Just save people because I was completely equipped at 22 to do that (I.was.an.idiot).
Nonetheless, I joined the Peace Corps with very sweet intentions, and was stationed in Ethiopia. I lived in the desert in a moderately-sized town called Welenchiti. I worked alongside reformed commercial sex workers who were gaining their financial freedom through alternative income generating projects. My main contribution to their cause was my skin color. I was a celebrity in Welenchiti, the first white person to have ever lived there. I had crowds follow me wherever I went, children cried at the sight of my pale, unknown skin color and people traveled for miles to see if this fable of the white girl in Welenchiti was real. So I used this celebrity status to help these women push paperwork through the local government, lobby for their rights and get funding for their projects. It was hardly rocket science. I learned so much more from those beautiful people then I could have ever hoped to teach them. They saved me. They saved me from myself and my ill-conceived trajectory; that perfect, meticulously planned, never wavering trajectory of “success.”
As I slowly began to unravel my prepackaged version of myself, I got sick. Not my daily diarrhea, vomiting from the food and extreme hot weather sick but the real kind of sick, the multi-system organ failure kind of sick. The capital shut off water to the remote villages and towns to give water privileges to the guests of some large conference they were hosting (straight-up Hungry Games style), so I had no fresh water for nine days, and I was severely dehydrated. My body seized and I quickly resigned that I wasn’t going to survive so I said my peace with Jesus. Calmly and convincingly, I closed my eyes to meet my Maker.
An hour, a day, who knows how long afterwards, I was awoken by flashlights and banging on my door. It wasn’t over. I was still alive. I hitchhiked five hours to the capital, then taxied and walked a few hours to the Peace Corps office to undergo tests to ascertain that I had acute renal failure anemia — kidney failure. I was medically evacuated immediately to South Africa where I spent a month in the hospital. The hospital felt like a spa. After living for more than a year in a mud hut, on a crooked foam pad with my many animal friends (flying cockroaches, rats, fire ants, lizards and a pet monkey named Cha Chi), I hardly remembered that such luxury existed. Slowly I became friends with two nurses who woke me up one night, snuck me into one of the VIP hospital suites and let me take a shower, my first shower in over a year and a major upgrade from my bucket baths.
I eventually heard the inevitable — I wasn’t released to go back to Ethiopia. It was straight to the States for me. I felt a mixed bag of relief, regret, sadness and shame. I struggled for a long time with survivor’s remorse and reverse culture shock. I have never returned to Welenchiti. It will take me a lifetime to process that experience.
Tell us about growing your career in the last few years. What do you think has contributed to these successes, and/or what have you learned?: For some reason I had this unspoken, expectation that I would have children and my career would slow down and I would play a more supporting role in my family.
Um, false. Very, very false. I started winning awards. I got promoted. Doors opened. I walked through every one of them. And I began to see my children call out for their daddy who has a more flexible schedule than mine. I came home to my husband cooking dinner. I was being updated on what happened around the house. It hurt. It still hurts. I just never thought this would be me, but it is…Now that a little bit of the shock has worn off, I am adjusting to this life, and I have no complaints. My husband is an amazing dad, he works hard at his job and he has the capacity to spend significant time with our girls who are cute, well-behaved and a joy to be around. I also love my work and continue to receive an abundant amount of opportunities. But this funny thing called a successful career has taken me a little bit by surprise.
What’s a “normal” day for you like?: Ooooh…this is fun. I wake up around 5:45a/6:00a to nurse my youngest, then I shower and get ready in lightning speed before my 2-year-old gets up. I change their diapers, make breakfast for them and snack when I can. Then, I hand the baton off to our lovely nanny, pump breast milk in the car on the way to work while chatting with my mum, and work two hours before I head to the gym for a rapid fire 45-minute workout. I speed out of the gym normally still sweaty and mildly flustered, then get a pump in before I hit my routine meetings and regular work with students. In the afternoon, I pump again (goodness, so much pumping). I stay at work until MBA classes start at 6:00p and then — you guessed it — I pump on my drive home. I walk in my front door to my lovely husband and two babies. I get the children ready for bed and put them asleep. Then, I make sure to kiss and appreciate my husband because he is, quite truly, amazing. We eat dinner and lounge for a couple hours, then head to bed to do it all over again. Oh yes, and I pump before bed.
What are the most cherished parts of your day?: My mornings are with my girls. That’s our cherished time. I traditionally go into work a little later so we all get up and celebrate each other with giggles, songs and story times. Gah… I love them.
What brings you joy? I love a cuppa proper Irish tea, with a candle lit, in a cozy blanket watching a TV show.
What did you do today? I survived. Two kids under two with a full time job…I say that is pretty good!